From Victorian yachts to historic tugs, Will Lower looks at the lessons learned from famous boat restorations


A boat restoration is an emotive topic. Those who sail regularly develop a strong affection for their vessel. They might moan about her quirks and shortcomings but should anyone agree they’ll stoutly claim she’s the most well-built, dependable craft one could ever wish for! So when the scrap heap beckons, it’s easy to understand the desire to restore the boat to her former glory. But this is also the time when the head and heart spin off in opposite directions.

Champion of marine heritage

In the 1990s, after my involvement in several successful restoration projects, I was undeservedly dubbed a champion of maritime heritage. Frequently, I was approached by owners seeking advice about their vessel, invariably described as ‘unique’, or ‘the last surviving aft-mizzen yawl (or whatever)’ or ‘a trip boat that’s given pleasure to thousands’.

Instead of offering an apologetic ‘no way’, I sent them to the local council instead, which had just granted a hefty sum to a worthless maritime project. At least the boat owner could be assured of a sympathetic ear… even though there would never be any more money.

Some tales were genuinely heart-wrenching, but many made me wonder how anyone could be so naïve or inexperienced to even consider tackling such a restoration.


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Some sad tales

One hopeful was John, a tax-inspector with no DIY skills or experience of boats. He’d just bought an 80-year-old, 30ft yacht that needed a complete restoration. It had a history, said John – although vague what that might be – but he was a cheerful person, so I agreed to take a look at the craft.

Laying on a desolate patch at the rear of a local yard, the boat certainly looked 80, if not 800 years old! It was a wreck that hadn’t moved in decades and a combination of weather and rot had created huge gaps between the timbers.

Rotted boat

It seemed the vendor had told John that a few weeks ‘in the water’ would expand the timbers and the boat become watertight, but it didn’t need a surveyor to recognise that no amount of soaking would resolve the problem. I politely disappeared, and learned later that John had decided to put the boat ‘in the water’ but moments into lifting, the hull had disintegrated into matchsticks.

John’s misfortune demonstrates the value of getting a survey, or at least a second opinion, before acquiring a boat for restoration. But even with enthusiasm, experience and all the necessary skills, there’s always the risk of unexpected problems.

Reasons for restoration

There can be many reasons for restoration. The vessel might be part of a nation’s maritime heritage. For a large vessel such as Cutty Sark or Waverley it’s going to be a multi-million pound undertaking, so best left to organisations capable of attracting the funding. However, many smaller, but no less historic craft, have been successfully restored by groups or individuals. Many Dunkirk Little Ships, for example, are still capable of a cross-channel passage, and some are over 100 years old.

Then there’s restoration of a craft with little or no history, but is the last-surviving example of its kind. Or simply a vessel that’s been part of the local scene for generations, such as a sailing barge, tug or lifeboat.

It’s personal

The greatest number by far, however, are boats that have been sailed, loved, and cherished by an individual or family for years – and for them, it’s personal. It’s perhaps hard to believe, but some GRP craft are now over 60 years old and despite the ‘bucket and brush’ construction with haphazard curing methods (which often resulted in raging osmosis), their massive over-engineered lay-up has ensured survival.

Whatever the motivation, there are many fascinating examples of yachts, motorboats, working boats and tall ships that have been successfully restored to their former glory.

Thames tug Kent

In the 1950s, Kent was one of the busiest tugs in Britain. She was launched in 1948 and spent most of her working life around the Thames estuary. By the 1960s, with the arrival of more sophisticated tugs, Kent was mothballed. Fifteen years later she was acquired by the Southeast Tug Society, a collection of tug men (active and retired) who had the skills to return her to her service condition.

Enormous engine

The enormous 880hp engine and associated electrical and mechanical items were refurbished while the exterior was restored. For a year the dock echoed each day with the sound of hammering as old paintwork was chipped away – a mind-numbing but essential task – and within 18 months Kent was in operational condition once more. Two decades later she appears at maritime events around Europe – which helps contribute to her annual running costs.

Saucy Sorceress and Lily Langtry

There are some remarkable people who will acquire a boat with which they have little or no association, simply as a ‘project’ to restore.

Richard Grimble was a violin maker who enjoyed sailing in his spare time. He bought a derelict 1878 Victorian gentleman’s yacht named Sorceress, which for 40 years had lain deep in the mud of an estuary marsh. With help from friends, it took him a year to dig the 60ft yacht from the muddy saltmarsh. The timber was well preserved and a 25-year restoration began. The result was utterly amazing: an accurate Victorian interior with veneered walnut panels, decorative brass inlays, chintz soft furnishings and a bathroom – complete with an authentic hip bath! There were two concessions: a modern diesel engine and, after consulting designers and sail experts, the rig was reduced to a more ‘manageable’ sail area.

King Edward VII racing yacht

Meanwhile, research revealed Sorceress had passed through eleven titled owners, and in her early years – as one of the fastest yachts at Cowes – had frequently been loaned to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) for racing, followed by an intimate evening dinner with his mistress, the actress Lily Langtry.

When the national media got hold of this story, people started arriving to see the boat. Richard was happy to show them around, but it was soon clear the interest was Lily Langtry. The bed in the main cabin was endlessly photographed. Richard never revealed he’d bought it at John Lewis a couple of years earlier!

Successful restoration

It was a remarkably successful restoration, but Richard was now in his 60s and the yacht needed at least five experienced crew to sail her. Richard was pragmatic so, despite the yacht representing over 30 years of his life, she was sold and he quietly retired.

Richard’s decision highlights one of the major decisions to be considered with any restoration. What do you do when restoration is complete? Maintenance is of course ongoing, requiring time and money, but will you have the energy and ability to enjoy the fruits of your endless years of labour? Will anyone else wish to continue your love and devotion to your wonderful craft?

Rocketing costs

For any restoration, large or small, there’ll always be problems along the way. Everything will cost more than expected. Shortage of funds might simply mean a delay, but at worst it could bring the project to a premature end.

Cutty Sark and HMS Warrior

In 2006, it was estimated that restoring the Cutty Sark would cost £25m; but in just four years this rocketed to £46m, and the final cost was over £50m. Other major projects have faced similar increases. The restoration of HMS Warrior was estimated at £4m, but doubled to £8m; and 40 years ago a £1m restoration of the Trimcomalee became £5m – with 65% of the ship untouched! More recently, the refurbishment of German sail-training tall ship Gorch Fock increased from an approved cost of r10m in 2017 to r125m last year, and the yard went bust. The German government has now taken over the yard and the ‘final’ cost is pending. As many commented, for that money they could have built four new Gorch Focks!

Floating boys’ home

When she was retired in 1935, the former German clipper Peking (launched in 1911) became a Barnardos boys’ home on the River Medway. In 1975 she was sold and towed to New York where, after renovation, she became a floating exhibit at a maritime museum adjacent to the World Trade Center. At first she welcomed over 15,000 visitors a week, but as the years passed interest dwindled. Following 9/11 the Peking was put up for sale at $1 on the condition that the buyer take her immediately. There was huge interest, particularly from this side of the Atlantic, which quickly disappeared when the cost of simply transporting her back to Europe was put at £8m.

Bringing Peking home

Fortunately, Germany has enormous pride in its sailing heritage. The Hamburg Maritime Foundation resolved to bring Peking home and, with private and public funding, restore her so she could enjoy life in a new port museum. After months of preparation, the vessel was loaded on a semi-submersible lift ship and returned to Hamburg where, after two years in dry dock, she’s now back afloat with hull and deck as new. The restoration is on course for completion in a couple of years. Interestingly, Hamburg paid ‘over the odds’ for the ship – $100, but they have secured r32m for the restoration, including r26m from the German government.

Trading-come-hospital ship

Hamburg isn’t the only city thinking big when it comes to restoring large ships. Launched at Sunderland in 1864, the tall ship City of Adelaide was the first of the composite steel and timber clippers. A contemporary of the Cutty Sark, she transported emigrants to Australia and returned with wool and copper. When her seagoing days were over, she was acquired by the Royal Navy as a static hospital ship at Southampton and later used for training.

Scottish Maritime Museum acquisition

Decommissioned in the late 1940s, she was moved to the Clyde and in 1991 was beached on marshland at Irvine where she became derelict. In 1992, the ship was acquired by the Scottish Maritime Museum and, with support from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, was given listed status while her future was considered. Two cities expressed interest in acquiring the vessel: Sunderland, where she had been built, and the Australian port Adelaide, after which she’d been named. The debate continued for 20 years, and to emphasise Sunderland’s considered right to the ship, one of their councillors even set up camp on the rapidly deteriorating vessel. But it was Adelaide that was successful, offering a highly skilled team, substantial funding and, significantly, backing from the Australian government. An innovative cradle was produced for secure transit to Adelaide where a total restoration is now in progress, and on completion the ship will be the centrepiece of a new ‘seaport’ village.

Celebrity steel yacht

The 20m steel ketch Askoy II, launched in 1960, was reputedly the largest yacht ever built in Belgium. She was owned and extensively sailed by the renowned singer and actor Jacques Brel until his death in 1978. Various owners followed (one was a drug smuggler!) until 1993 when, caught by a storm, Askoy II was wrecked on the New Zealand coast and left to rot. In 2007, two Belgian brothers, both master sailmakers, found the hull almost completely buried on the beach and spent over r100,000 (£85,000) digging out the shell of the derelict yacht and transporting her back to Belgium. The yacht is slowly being restored, mainly at the brothers’ expense, assisted by income from a museum about the project (and Jacques Brel) that has been set up in an adjoining workshop.

Demise of a Queen

During the final years of World War II the Admiralty commissioned some new inshore patrol craft, designed along well-proven trawler lines so that after the war they could replace fishing boats lost during hostilities.

Scotch Queen restoration

Stoutly built in oak, Scotch Queen was launched at Grimsby in 1944 and following discharge from a short naval service, joined a Scottish fishing fleet. In the 1980s she became a diving vessel, spending several years in warmer climes, before returning to the UK where in 1993 she was bought by Tony, who planned to restore her but was having difficulties finding a berth.

Teredo worm infestation

Tony was an enthusiastic, open, and honest person – to the extent of revealing a problem that was undoubtedly why he couldn’t get a berth. The boat was infested with teredo worm! This mollusc munches its way through timber, creating holes nearly an inch in diameter and many feet long with barely a wafer of timber between them. In times past, copper sheathing protected a hull, and today a strong antifouling is equally effective – providing it’s applied before the worm attacks.

Scotch Queen had neither, and as the worm can transfer from hulls to piles and harbour constructions, it was clear why nobody offered a berth for the vessel, despite her being on the Historic Ship’s Register. Like a modern Flying Dutchman, the boat spent years on various ‘temporary’ moorings – with occasional trips to find a permanent home.

Meanwhile, the hull continued to deteriorate and in 2017 Scotch Queen was sold as scrap and broken up in Falmouth, a sad end for a vessel that was part of Britain’s maritime heritage.

Restoration or replica?

Every restoration project that fails will undoubtedly be replaced by another, and as time goes by, more and more craft will become candidates for restoration.

Sometimes, a thorough cleaning, a decent repaint and the minor faults sorted might be all that’s required. For others, it might mean a total rebuild with everything stripped and replaced until the boat is close to its original condition.

Only Fools & Horses – Trigger

This brings me to what I call the ‘Trigger factor’. Remember Trigger? He was the council street-sweeper of the popular TV series Only Fools & Horses, who would proudly boast of his broom’s longevity and heritage: ‘I’ve had this same broom for over 20 years… only 12 new heads and 6 new handles’.

I recall the owner of an old Victorian gaff cutter about 35ft (16m) long that spent nearly a year in a specially-built cradle while skilled boatbuilders carefully replaced every rib/frame, followed by a further nine months re-planking. With a new deck, interior, mast and rigging, the owner would wax lyrical about his century-old craft – although the oldest item on board was probably himself!

The aura of an original boat

This is an issue that faces many involved with restoring something that is old – at what point does the restoration create what is effectively a ‘replica’?

With today’s technology, it’s possible to create an exact copy of the original, reproducing the marks left by hand tools – and even scuffs and wear!

But there’s a feel, almost an ‘aura’, surrounding an original boat that’s difficult to explain. Just gripping the tiller or belaying a rope around a cleat that’s been there for decades can instantly evoke thoughts of past generations that had similarly carried out the same actions.

Thames sailing barge

A few years ago I was invited to a new Thames sailing barge. It was an odd experience. The deck was perfectly smooth, the windlass (from an old barge and completely refurbished) was ‘as new’ and it lacked the umpteen coats of paint that is typical of an original craft. Strangely it didn’t have the smell of a barge. It looked like a barge, it sailed like a barge, and it was a barge… but it just didn’t feel like one! Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped it becoming one of the most successful barges operating in the charter market.

Irrelevant or cause for celebration?

So, should we applaud those who commit their time and effort – sometimes for almost a lifetime – to preserving something from the past, or dismiss their actions as irrelevant to modern times?

Let me quote a comment from Richard Grimble who, after over 25 years restoring Sorceress, said: ‘I love our heritage which these days we seem to let slip away too easily. All I wanted to do was preserve something for future generations.’

Richard succeeded, and hopefully may others long continue to do so too.

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This feature appeared in Practical Boat Owner magazine. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

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